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A Timeline of Interference: How Trump and Russia Targeted Georgia Election

Big questions remain about Russia’s attempts to interfere in US elections

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Photomontage: PA Images / Alamy

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Back in October 2017, in Atlanta-Fulton County, the current scene of the indictment and pending prosecution of Donald Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election results, social media began to buzz with the realization that Russian Ambassador Sergeii Kislyak had visited the Georgia election center at Kennesaw State University (KSU) in the run-up to the 2016 election.

In the same October 2017 time frame, word had just leaked out that the servers at the KSU election center were wiped clean the day after Secretary of State Brian Kemp and former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens received notice of a legal proceeding seeking access to the KSU servers – to search for evidence of Russian hacking in the 2016 election.

Social media’s after-the-fact connection of those two data points did not prompt an investigation by the Georgia Attorney General, any local district attorney or the Department of Justice (DOJ) under new Trump administration, or even local media investigative reporting.

Instead, in November 2017, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the AJC, as it is colloquially known) scoffed at the notion that there was anything untoward about Kislyaks’s pre-election visit to KSU, despite unconfirmed reports Kislyak was given a tour of the Georgia election center on campus.

The AJC snarked about Trump’s 5-point victory in Georgia, as if the comfortable victory rendered any Russian intrigue pointless—forgetting that Hillary Clinton led in Georgia polls prior to the election.

 With subsequent elections under greater scrutiny, Georgia’s decades-long reliability for Republicans has since been sorely tested with Biden’s victory and the election of two Democratic US Senators.

But the AJC saved its real ridicule – of ‘conspiracy theorists’ – for the source of the revelation of the Kislyak visit, a one-sentence blurb among a list of international accomplishments in Kennesaw State’s own glossy alumni magazine.

The AJC’s curt dismissal of concerns shows how the media was slow to adapt to the three big lessons of the Trump era:

1) Things were never what they seemed to be at the time as the Trump-Russia saga unfolded. News stories on Facebook that the Pope endorsed Trump, and a Twitter account apparently representing the Tennessee GOP, were both creations of a Russian troll farm in St Petersburg, frequently retweeted by the Trump family and campaign officials. The Obama administration’s tepid warning of Russian election meddling did not convey the storm that was coming.

2) Crimes were frequently hidden in plain sight. Trump’s call for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, soliciting a felony from a foreign adversary, was broadcast on national TV, as was his incitement of a mob of supporters to stop the electoral count. Trump said don’t believe your eyes and ears, and Atlanta media obliged on the Kislyak visit to KSU.

3) Many of the open transgressions of laws and norms, nonetheless, began in darkness. When the New York Times brought it to daylight, Trump concocted a fake story that the Trump Tower meeting with Russian government agents was about adoptions, not sanctions or stolen emails. Then there were the initial attempts at secrecy by the fake electors, now charged in the Fulton County indictment.

Though the AJC lampooned the idea that a nefarious scheme would be outed by the KSU alumni relations department recounting Kislyak’s visit, details overlooked by the pundits also hinted that the Kislyak visit was not what it seemed, either.

Start with the strange secrecy. Dr. Dan Papp, KSU President at the time and a Russia scholar, had no knowledge the Russian Ambassador to the United States visited his university in April 2016. Papp certainly had no way of knowing that an indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, filed more than two years later, would charge Russian agents with cyber-attacks on Georgia’s election system that followed the Kislyak visit to the KSU campus.

A stronger bolt of secrecy was the suspicious wiping of the KSU election center servers itself. And there was more dissimulation to come: then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, in response to questions from local media, both gave false reasons for this destruction of important evidence in an official court proceeding. The AJC reported those false responses, that the wiping was part of routine maintenance and was authorized by the FBI, without further investigation.

If Kemp and Olens’ misrepresentations were knowingly false, they would be chargeable as felonies under the same criminal statutes Fani Willis is now using to charge Trump and Rudy Giuliani.

That alone constitutes sufficient reason to investigate these events.

Yet there has been no investigation to date to explain exactly what Kislyak was doing on the KSU campus that day. We know, in hindsight, from the Mueller Report, that the Russian mission in the US solicited state election officials around the country in 2016, seeking to visit their election headquarters to learn, as if the Russian intelligence central directorate (GRU) was a fifth grade class on a field trip, more about how US elections work—a chilling thought in the after-knowledge that their mission, on orders from Putin, was to attack the US democratic process. According to Mueller, most states declined the solicitation to welcome Russian agents as observers during campaign season.

Was Kislyak’s visit part of that operation, and did Kislyak tour Georgia’s election center as the guest of Secretary of State Brian Kemp? In Georgia, the question has never officially been asked or answered. Nor has there been any plausible, innocent explanation of how the Georgia election center servers at KSU could be wiped clean with notice of an investigation seeking evidence of Russian hacking.

This alarming scenario only scratches the surface of a byzantine saga that raises questions of collusion between Georgia state officials and Russians in election interference going back to the 2016 presidential race.

This is perhaps best illustrated by a timeline of documented events that starts in 2014 with a Russian agent visiting Atlanta and the placement of remote-control malware on the KSU election center servers. It continues through the leak of the first US intelligence assessment of the pervasiveness of the Russian intelligence measures, the wiping of the KSU servers, and the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation that the Russians launched cyber-attacks on the election infrastructure of Georgia, as well as every other state in the nation.

The timeline tracks all the way to 2023 with the recent indictment and arrest of Russians and Americans working with them—for colluding to interfere with the 2020 election in Georgia, the very notion the AJC mocked as preposterous back in 2017.

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A Timeline of Interference

February 2014 – In a quick sequence of events, Ukrainians revolt against pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Kremlin-sponsored American political operative Paul Manafort – whose right-hand man was a Russian intelligence agent named Konstantin Kilimnik. Putin responds to the setback of his ambitions in Ukraine by immediately moving forces to occupy Crimea.

March 2014 – The Obama administration imposes sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and Putin responds by ordering an expansive cyber-attack on US elections.

November 2014 – As part of that cyber-attack, a Russian intelligence agent, later an un-named co-conspirator in the 2018 Mueller indictment, travels to Atlanta and reports back to Sergey Polozov, manager of the Russian troll farm’s IT department. Polozov ordered the procurement of servers inside the US to mask the origin of the Russian disinformation campaign. Were they procured in Georgia?

December 2014 – Servers at the Georgia Center for Election Systems, located on the campus of Kennesaw State University (KSU), are compromised by malware that allows a remote user to control them (an intrusion not discovered and publicly disclosed until January 2020).

April 27, 2016 – Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak was guest of honor at candidate Trump’s maiden foreign policy address at Mayflower Hotel.

April 28, 2016 – The next day, Kislyak gets an election-year tour of the Georgia Center for Election Systems on the KSU campus. The Georgia election center at KSU was run at the time by the University System of Georgia (USG) under contract with the then-Georgia Secretary of State, now Governor, Brian Kemp.

May 2016 – One week after Kislyak’s visit, a USG official visits KSU President Dan Papp and threatens to smear him with false allegations of financial impropriety if he does not resign. It was later established that the alleged financial impropriety – illegally paying Papp out of foundation funds – had been orchestrated by the USG, not Papp. Papp will be replaced as KSU president by the then-sitting Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens—who had documented knowledge of the USG’s alleged financial fraud and extortion of Dr. Papp.

June 2016 – Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort meet with Russian agents offering help from the Russian government—which the Trump campaign thought to be the rumored Clinton emails hacked by Russian intelligence. The Russians wanted to discuss removing the sanctions imposed for occupying Eastern Ukraine.

July 27, 2016 – “Russia if you’re listening…” Trump asks Russian intelligence to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on national TV. As later revealed in Mueller’s July 13 2018 indictment, the Russians responded by hacking Clinton the same day.

July 31, 2016 – Prompted by rumblings that the Trump campaign is trying to obtain Clinton emails hacked and stolen by Russian intelligence, the FBI opens an investigation into whether the Trump campaign is coordinating with Russian intelligence.

August 2016 – Concerned by growing speculation about Russian cyber-attacks, Atlanta security researcher Logan Lamb performs his own online investigation, finds and discloses major vulnerabilities in Georgia election system at KSU that make it severely susceptible to hacking. Georgia personal voter data and election staff passwords were left exposed on the KSU website for months.

Lamb discovered that there was an identified security hole – for which a patch had been developed two years earlier, but not employed by the election center. This security flaw allowed an outside hacker to take control of the site. Lamb was accidentally able to download the state’s entire database of 6.7 million registered voters.

Lamb reported the security issues to KSU even as the USG was moving to replace Dr Papp as KSU president with Attorney General Sam Olens. Lamb’s findings were not publicly disclosed until over six months later, in March of 2017, when he discovered the KSU election center had done nothing to fix the problems to which he alerted them.

August 15 – Based on growing reports of Russian election interference, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed designating state election systems as critical infrastructure, which would allow the federal government to assist the states with election security.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp reacted with vocal public opposition to federal involvement, accusing the Obama administration of subverting the Constitution and claiming there was no chance of Russian hacking [in fact, Russian disinformation and hacking campaigns were already underway, according to the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee 2020 report]. Brian Kemp was one of only two Secretaries of State who rejected the offer of federal assistance.

September 28 – Kemp testified in Congress in opposition to federal assistance to secure state election systems, including the Georgia election center at KSU.

October 4 – Chancellor Huckaby announces Attorney General Sam Olens as sole candidate for president of KSU in violation of Board of Regents policies on presidential appointments.

October 2016 – Internal emails show KSU’s technology staff acknowledged the elections system had “40+ critical vulnerabilities.”

Mueller’s subsequent July 13, 2018, indictment of Russian military intelligence agents specifies that they penetrated the election infrastructure in Georgia counties in October 2016, the month before the election. In response to the Mueller indictment, Kemp announced that the Secretary of State’s office was never breached by Russians. That was a misleading dodge since Georgia elections were not administered at his office, but at the KSU election center.

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October 28 – KSU faculty file a lawsuit against USG and Attorney General to enjoin Olens’ appointment to replace Dr. Papp as KSU president—based on violation of USG policies, extortion and bribery in the Papp removal and Olens appointment, to conceal massive financial fraud in the same university system that is running the election center – bringing civil RICO charges against many of the cast of characters in the current Fani Willis indictment.

Subsequent motions alleged that Dan Papp had been removed by fraud to make way for Olens, falsely attributing the USG’s own financial fraud to Papp. Most importantly, the KSU lawsuit alleged a quid pro quo, that the USG appointed Olens in return for Olens making knowing misrepresentations to block hearings and investigations into massive financial fraud in the USG involving admitted falsification of USG financial records. The acts alleged would constitute false statement and obstruction felonies by Attorney General Olens.

What is most unusual is the newly appointed Georgia Attorney General replacing Olens, Chris Carr, never answered the complaint, and never responded to subsequent motions filed in the case. Filing a false response would have been a felony under OCGA 16-10-20.1, the same criminal statute under which Trump and Eastman are charged for the false claims in their 2020 election denial  lawsuit.

November 1 – Olens started work at KSU as provisional president, placing him over the Georgia election center at KSU.

November 8 – Donald Trump elected President of the US.

November 10 – Computer files before this date—that is, from before the election—go missing from KSU [discovered January 2020]

Nov 15 – Brian Kemp diverted attention from growing claims of Russian hacking affecting the US presidential election by accusing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of hacking into Georgia election systems. Kemp asked Trump, the beneficiary of the Russian attack on US elections, to investigate the DHS for hacking Georgia.

December 2016 – Former Georgia Republican Congressman and Trump surrogate Jack Kingston visited Moscow advocating an end to sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama for invading eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. A 2023 DOJ indictment charged a Russian national with running a program in Georgia, funded by Russian intelligence services, to bring Americans to Russia for the purposes of spreading false Russian propaganda and promoting Russian agendas, including an end to sanctions for invading Ukraine.

March 2017 – Lamb revisits the KSU election center website and finds evidence that election-related files were deleted from the server, just after a colleague of his alerted KSU officials that the election server remained vulnerable to hackers. That means the KSU election center had remained completely vulnerable at least from August 2016 to March 2017.

After Lamb’s disclosure that KSU had not fixed any of the problems Lamb identified in August 2016, the FBI took custody of servers, to investigate Lamb’s actions, and returned them to KSU later in March – after vouching only that Lamb committed no crimes by accessing the election center site. There is no indication the FBI investigated the servers for election interference.

April 2017 – Special election for Sixth Congressional District, to replace Trump cabinet nominee Tom Price, suffers from tabulation errors. The system shut down with Democrat Jon Ossoff leading with sufficient margin to avoid a runoff in the multi-candidate field. After the system was restored, Ossoff percentage falls below 50%, requiring a run-off with Karen Handel (who eventually wins in a June run-off). Along with questions about Russian hacking, this anomaly was one of the factors that prompted the filing of the court case seeking access to the KSU servers—after which the servers were wiped.

May 5, 2017 – Classified National Security Agency report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood. It states that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks.

May 9, 2017 – Trump fired FBI Director James Comey to relieve the pressure of the Russia investigation, as Trump told Sergeii Kislyak the next day in the Oval Office, where Kislyak was visiting with Russian foreign minister Sergeii Lavrov.

June 5, 2017 – Leaked NSA assessment that Russian hacking of state election systems in 2016 was more extensive than previously believed hits the media.

Also on June 5, a US government defense contractor in Augusta, Georgia named Reality Winner is arrested for mailing the report to news media to inform the public of the extent of the Russian intelligence attack on the 2016 election to help Trump.

July 2, 2017 – The day before the lawsuit seeking access to the KSU servers was filed, and five days before the servers were wiped clean, Kemp published an op-ed purporting to debunk the possibility of Russian hacking of state election systems.

July 3, 2017 – Kemp was praised by Russian state media outlet RT for his staunch stance against the investigations of Russian election interference. Lawsuit seeking access to the KSU servers filed the same day.

July 4, 2017 – Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office was alerted about the lawsuit by the press and declined to comment.

July 6, 2017 – Kemp received a copy of the lawsuit seeking access to the KSU servers to look for evidence of Russian hacking.

July 7, 2017 – Though not known till three months later, Georgia election center servers on KSU campus were wiped clean. When this destruction of evidence was later discovered in October 2017, Brian Kemp initially blamed KSU for “undeniable ineptitude.” Olens was KSU president at the time.  After declining comment for days, KSU issued a statement that the servers were wiped per “standard operating procedure,” a claim disputed by all experts.  KSU did not respond to a later AP query as to who ordered the action.

The controversy that was building in Georgia with the wiping of the servers was not occurring in a vacuum. July 7 is also the same day the New York Times disclosed the Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents. See June 9, 2016.

Don’t miss a story

August 2017 – Data on Georgia election center backup servers at KSU destroyed (in addition to July 7 wiping of the main servers). Olens is KSU president, and the destruction of evidence is not yet known to the public—or to the election integrity plaintiffs seeking access to the KSU servers, or to the KSU faculty suing to block appointment of Olens as president.

September 2017 – Kemp falsely tweets that Georgia election system was not targeted by Russian hackers, a statement since contradicted by multiple investigations. Further inquiries have shown that, given the extreme vulnerability of Georgia’s election system under Kemp, it would have been intelligence malpractice for the Russians not to exploit it.

October 17, 2017 – Motion filed in the case to block Olens’ appointment as KSU president details Olens’ involvement in the fraud and extortion by which Papp was removed to make way for Olens. Attorney General Chris Carr, appointed to replace Olens when Olens took over the KSU presidency, never responded to the motion.

A knowingly false response regarding this state government business would constitute a felony.

Oct 18, 2017 – Letter from AG Carr’s office for the first time discloses wiping of KSU election servers on July 7 and August 9. The Attorney General originally misrepresented that the servers were wiped in March after they were returned by the FBI—not in July, with notice of the lawsuit seeking access to the servers. That was a false statement which, if made knowingly, would constitute a felony.

October 26, 2017 – The AP broke the news that the KSU election center servers were wiped back in July, only days after the lawsuit was filed seeking access to the servers to examine them for evidence of hacking in the 2016 presidential and 2017 special elections

October 31, 2017False statements in local media by Kemp and Olens that Kennesaw State University’s elections center acted “in accordance with standard IT procedures” when it wiped data from a computer server. It did not take long for these statements to be debunked as false.

Kemp also falsely insisted that Homeland Security assured him that Georgia was not one of the states targeted by Russian GRU hackers

November 2, 2017 – Kemp followed up with more false statements that the server wiping was fake news concocted by liberals.

On the same day, Attorney General Carr withdrew from the election integrity case for an unspecified conflict of interest —even while failing to respond in the KSU case addressing bribery of Olens and extortion of Papp, in connection with future fake electors, now indicted by Fani Willis. Carr continued to represent the state defendants with knowledge that the servers had been wiped since at least October 18. It was only after the destruction of evidence was publicly disclosed that Carr withdrew from the case.

November 3, 2017 – The AJC ridicules concern over the disclosure that Kislyak toured Kennesaw State in April 2016.

December 2017 – With the lawsuit by KSU faculty still pending, with no response from Attorney General Chris Carr to any of the pleadings alleging extortion, fraud, and bribery in the USG appointment of the former attorney general, Sam Olens announced he would be leaving KSU.

February 9, 2018 – Secretary of State Brian Kemp agains falsely claims that Georgia’s 2016 election  was not targeted by Russian hackers.

February 2018 – Mueller indictment of Russian Internet Research Agency run by Yevgeny Prighozin reveals Russian social media disinformation campaign against US election, including a GRU agent posted to Atlanta (the only one not identified by name in the indictment).

July 13, 2018 – A second Mueller indictment of Russian hackers singles out Georgia as one of the states probed by Russian GRU agents for vulnerabilities in October 2016. Based on the reports from Logan Lamb, such vulnerabilities were not in short supply, and the Russians could have controlled the KSU servers without the need to hack into them.

July 2018 – Kemp defends Georgia election security, downplays the Russia “hoax,” and in return gets Trump’s endorsement, catapulting Kemp from a distant dark horse to the lead in the Governor’s race.

Nov 2018 – Brian Kemp elected Georgia Governor amid voter suppression controversy.

July 2019Yet one more letter to Governor Kemp requesting independent investigation of the destruction of evidence of election fraud at the KSU Center for Election Systems, which remains unanswered.

January 2020 – Reviewing a copy of the server data obtained from the FBI, from its March 2017 examination, researcher Lamb found evidence of a 2014 hack into state election system at KSU allowing remote override. Lamb also disclosed the disappearance of the server logs prior to November 10, 2016, two days after the presidential election—which would hamper efforts to determine what may had been added to or removed from the servers.

November 19, 2020 – Georgia is the last state to be called for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

December 2020Trump calls Governor Brian Kemp asking Kemp to call a special session of the Georgia legislature to decide the 2020 election.

January 2, 2021 – Trump call to Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger asking him to find 11,780 votes.

January 6, 2021 – Assault on Capitol to stop the electoral count.

September 2021 – Complaint filed with Georgia Inspector General Scott McAfee, now the judge presiding over Trump Fulton County indictment, requesting investigation of USG fraud. No response from the IG.

July 2022Indictment of Russian agents for election interference in Georgia.

One focus of the alleged election influence operation was to create the appearance of American popular support for Russia’s annexation of territories in Ukraine. 

April 2023 – A Georgia man was charged in a superseding indictment for Russian election interference unsealed by the DOJ in Tampa, Florida. A Russian national was previously indicted for funding related influence operations in Georgia on behalf of Russian intelligence.

May 2023 – DOJ indictment targets a Russian money laundering operation in Buford, Georgia connected to Russian oligarchs and the Russian government.

The recent indictments bear no apparent direct connection to KSU server saga, but they do show that Russian intelligence is active in Georgia–in financial crimes and election interference– notwithstanding the AJC’s scoffing denial of the very possibility of election interference by Russian intelligence at the KSU election center.


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Unanswered Questions

A complete list of the related events raising questions about Russian election interference and collusion in Georgia would require a tome the size of the Mueller report.

The events listed in this partial timeline are not conjecture but documented facts. They have never been analyzed together as a whole or investigated to their logical conclusions. Contrary to the debunked narrative of the Durham report that there was too much investigation, , they demonstrate how much there is left to explore about the Russian attack on US elections, even in the State of Georgia—even as a prosecution of the 2020 efforts to overthrow election results and democracy itself is underway.

Here are some unexamined avenues that merit more investigation:

How did Kislyak get to KSU? How was he invited without the knowledge of the university president, who was soon to be summarily dismissed in favor of a former attorney general accused of obstruction and bribery to protect the USG that was running the election center? The USG fraud in the ouster of Dr. Papp for a compromised replacement is a story in itself.

There is a more complicated narrative about Brian Kemp, who sang the same tune as Putin before he stopped at the edge of the cliff of throwing the 2020 election for Donald Trump. It differs from the media narrative about the man who stood up to Trump to save democracy. The narrative also shows Trump treading in a Georgia landscape so primed for corruption that it led him to entertain expectations he could muscle his way to an election victory.

Fani Willis chose not to investigate all the way back to the 2016 election. But with so many critical unanswered questions about potential crimes and threats to national security related to Russian election interference in Georgia, who else is going to do it?

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